The season, so far
I assumed most Liverpool fans don’t know what to make of the club’s start to the season. Great performances away to Arsenal and Chelsea have been mixed with horror shows at home to West Ham and a shocking lack of ambition away to Manchester United, the biggest fixture of the season.
It was a surprise to see Brendan Rodgers keep his job at the end of last season, with the club exiting the Champions League race early and Steven Gerrard’s farewell tour turning sour. It was even more of a surprise to see him lose his job after 11 games in all competitions this year, particularly as the club had backed another spending spree (albeit funded by the sale of Raheem Sterling) over the summer.
If any manager other than one with the title winning pedigree and charisma of Jürgen Klopp had been appointed, the feeling among fans would have been that the club was entering a spiral of negativity and confusion. Turgid performances on the pitch, with the side unable to create or finish many chances, would have been mixed with a feeling of confusion and panic at the boardroom level.
But Klopp has single-handedly managed to raise the mood of the place. Not necessarily in performances – he’s still not getting this team to score many goals, the defense still has manic moments — but he’s been positive, hugging everyone in sight, and talking about bringing belief and energy back to Anfield.
And with December yet to come, Liverpool have already travelled to the Brittania, Old Trafford, the Emirates, Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane, and Goodison Park. The next game is at the Etihad. Out of those 18 points, they’ve managed to scrape nine, and a win at City would mean they’d have negotiated some of the toughest league fixtures credibly amid all the upheaval at the club.
With a good January transfer window, an easier fixture list in the New Year, and Klopp learning more about the players (and them about his methods), Liverpool could be up there in the mix for the top four places.
The road ahead
The hardest game left until the New Year is away to Manchester City, when the hosts could have Sergio Agüero back from injury. Both clubs generally have a lot of players away on international duty, and it’s difficult to ascertain before the break is over which club will be left in a worse shape by potential injuries.
The only silver lining is the game coming after Klopp has had two weeks to prepare, two weeks to get Daniel Sturridge fit, and two weeks to do further work on his gegenpressing. Liverpool have found it difficult thus far in deciding when they press and when they lay-off, often fading late in games (notably against Crystal Palace), and with a few fresh players after the break and with further training sessions, they might be more polished against City.
A point or three would be a great result in Manchester, but that game won’t make or break this period for Liverpool. At home to a struggling Swansea City, away to a terrible Newcastle United, at Anfield against a toothless West Brom, visiting newly promoted Watford, back home to Leicester City (who surely can’t keep their blistering form up for long), and finally away to bottom feeders Sunderland are the year’s remaining fixtures. On paper, this looks like an achievable 18 points. If six wins out of six are achieved and the club is on a roll heading into the January transfer window, it could spur more investment from the board to seriously challenge for the top four.
In practice winning the seemingly easy games is always harder, particularly with Liverpool’s inability to score more than once on a regular basis. However, at least 15 points is a must, Chelsea have too high a wage bill to stay just outside the relegation zone for long, Tottenham have lost only once in the league, and the top three places seem sealed by Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs. Liverpool are 10th halfway through November. The push has to come now.
In addition to the very winnable league games, Liverpool are still in three cup competitions. They’re unbeaten in the Europa league but have won only once, so the home game against a struggling Bordeaux on Nov. 26 is key. Depending on other results, a win against group-toppers FC Sion on the last matchday could be key in finishing top rather than second and avoiding a high seed or a Champions League drop-out in the Round of 32.
The League Cup quarterfinals are on the first week of December, with Liverpool away to Southampton, though performance in the competition wouldn’t make or break the season. The club haven’t won a trophy since 2011, true, but this is probably the least important cup competition the team is in. The sheer reality is that players are attracted to and revenue is gained from being in the Champions League, and only the Premiership and the Europa League offer routes into that competition.
With four competitions, Liverpool will be faced with two games a week, with the busy Premier League Christmas period that sees Liverpool play on Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve making injury management crucial. Since Klopp’s arrival, players have been going down with knee injuries like flies. Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson haven’t played a game for their new manager, Mamadou Sakho will be out for this crucial period, and the lack of squad depth caused by injuries means Philippe Coutinho, Emre Can, and the two fullbacks, Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne, have been seriously overworked.
On paper, Liverpool have the quality to compete with any team they meet over this period, with the exception of Manchester City; however, injuries, fatigue and misfortune could derail this run and their entire season. Klopp has persistently talked about belief and mental strength. This run is where it needs to be put into practice.
What the club does in January will be very much influenced by what happens during this season-defining period. If 14 or 15 out of 18 league points are taken and Liverpool progress in their cup competitions, Klopp is perfectly within his rights to demand reinforcements for a squad thin.
It is notoriously difficult to get quality players in during January, with other clubs trying to hold on to them until the summer to ensure their own good seasons continue. However, there are always a few gems available.
It’s tempting to say that Liverpool should bring in a striker, particularly if Sturridge and Christian Benteke continue to struggle to put in a run of games. But it would be difficult to convince Fenway Sports Group to bring in a fifth striker, basically ensuring they would have to move on one of Origi or Danny Ings soon after buying them (it would be difficult to find a buyer willing to take on Sturridge’s wages for a decent fee given his injury record).
The big adjustment Liverpool need is a proper winger. The center is congested with Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana, Coutinho, James Milner, Henderson, Can, Lucas Leiva and several promising youth players, all wanting to fill three or four slots. But out wide, there’s only Jordon Ibe for true width and pace. A top-tier player wouldn’t be necessary, just someone potent enough to ensure defenses can’t pack the middle and deny Liverpool’s creators room to operate.
If John Flanagan continues to be hampered by injuries, a utility fullback could be necessary as well, as Moreno and Clyne have been playing a lot of games in succession.
I’m sure FSG will temper their short-term buying January with their long-term plan for the club, but the goal has to be to make the top-four this season. Chelsea will be strong again next year, West Ham are moving into a big stadium and Tottenham is also planning future expansion. The top three are out of reach for the moment, and every year fourth place isn’t reached, the task becomes harder. Liverpool can’t afford to keep drifting away from where they want to be.
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